2009 Policy Priority Options
Each year, our Policy Advisory Council makes recommendations for how the Land Trust Alliance should prioritize its public policy efforts for the following year. For 2008, the Council recommended that the Alliance's policy work center around three basic priorities:
- Managing potential changes to the rules governing conservation
- Making the 2006 increase in conservation tax incentives permanent,
- Increasing federal support for farmland conservation.
This recommendation was adopted by the Alliance's Board of Directors. The Alliance has had essentially identical priorities since 2006. We want your input on what our priorities should be next year – because our bottom line is how we can best help you meet your conservation goals.
We look forward to hearing from you at Rally workshop D24, 10:30AM to Noon on Sunday, Sept. 21. If you're unable to join us, please use this chart to rank the options below and email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org by September 29th.
Our criteria for policy priorities
Several years ago, the Alliance’s Policy Advisory Council adopted the following criteria for consideration of our public policy priorities:
Would the objective of the policy priority result in broad, national benefits?
Is there a reasonable prospect that the objective will be successful?
Is the Alliance's participation critical to success?
Does the Alliance have the capacity to achieve that success?
Will the initiative have general support from the Alliance's membership?
Is the objective consistent with land trusts' support for voluntary conservation by willing landowners?
1. Managing potential changes to the rules governing conservation donations
Over the past several years, the IRS has completely changed its approach to enforcement of the law governing charitable donations – with particular attention to donations of conservation easements. The IRS initiated audits of more than 900 conservation easement donations in the past several years. Most of these cases have yet to be resolved. How these cases are resolved will change the rules we live by. In addition, the IRS has increased its oversight of charities, resulting in changes to the Forms 8283 and Form 990, and a new and much more aggressive enforcement stance. There are real risks that new policies and practices at the IRS could have significant impacts on land trusts, and on our ability to conserve land.
The IRS is a large and complex bureaucracy, and both their policy-setting and audit processes are slow. We can expect this issue to be of great importance to land trusts for the next several years – or longer.
2. Making the 2006 increase in conservation tax incentives permanent
In 2006 Congress enacted a major increase in tax benefits for conservation easement donors, expiring at the end of 2007. In 2007 and 2008, we were able to make great progress toward winning a permanent extension of this policy, including recruiting 200 Congressional sponsors for our legislation. In 2008, we won an extension of this provision, but only through 2009. That means that making the incentive permanent is an issue that is still very much with us.
Is the new incentive making a difference? Many land trusts reported a remarkable surge in interest in conservation easements amongst local landowners. It will, however, probably take years of outreach, particularly to agricultural landowners, before the full potential of this incentive is realized.
3. Increasing federal support for farmland conservation
The Alliance began work in 2006 on a new farm bill, which finally became law in 2008. The new law (covering FY 2008 – FY 2012) provides $743 million for the Farmland Protection Program, and authority to protect 1.22 million additional acres under the Grassland Reserve Program, estimated to cost $300 million. That’s an average of $208 million a year for these programs – a big increase from the $125 million a year in the prior Farm Bill.
These are funds that can share in the cost of purchasing conservation easements by land trusts. The new bill also includes significant policy changes that should make both programs much friendlier for land trusts and landowners. Many thanks are due to American Farmland Trust, the Partnership of Rangeland Trusts, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and The Nature Conservancy for their work on this issue.
We are still working with the Department of Agriculture on rulemakings for these programs, but we do not anticipate spending anywhere near the time and effort we put forward in 2007 on this issue. That work stretched our capacity to near the breaking point. If we can increase our capacity, however, we do have the opportunity to start something new in 2009.
Additional Issues for 2009?
There are real limits to the number of issues the Alliance can significantly influence. We can and do add our name to other efforts that help land trusts - but our ability to provide leadership and detailed attention is limited by our resources – and by yours. We can only be effective when our member land trusts are actively engaged in the policy issues we are working on. Recently, the Alliance has been able to take leadership on no more than two or three national policy issues.
Below is a very brief review of a number of issues of concern to the land trust community. Each of the items listed here - and many others - could significantly help land conservation.
4. Make aid for land conservation an element of Global Climate Change legislation
Earlier this year, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted in favor of a bill to create a “cap and trade” system for controlling US carbon dioxide emissions in order to mitigate climate change. Both major party candidates for President have endorsed a similar approach. Though the bill failed to break a filibuster on the Senate floor, there seems to be growing momentum for further policy dialogue on control of carbon dioxide emissions (largely from burning of fossil fuels).
In an era of shrinking federal funding and strong political opposition to higher federal taxes, the Senate bill represents a potentially huge source of new federal funding available to the Congress (from the “auction” of carbon permits to industry).
The 2008 bill would have provided more than $9 billion a year of those funds for wildlife conservation, including major allocations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and for the implementation of state wildlife plans. The Senate bill does not allocate any of this funding specifically for private land protection.
In addition, some of the very valuable carbon permits created in the bill were allocated to “sequestration projects” that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The projects envisioned in the bill include protection of tropical forests – but do not explicitly include land protection projects in the US. Protecting natural and agricultural lands in the US may be important to achieving the goal of reduced carbon emissions, as they currently absorb roughly 12.5% of US carbon emissions each year. So far, however, the legislative process has given this little consideration.
The lack of consideration given the conservation work of land trusts in this policy arena is both a huge opportunity, and a huge challenge. The economics at work in this policy area are immense. We have a discrete and so far, largely unrepresented voice to add. But there are many other interests already engaged here.
If we hope to influence federal policy on global climate change, we will need to tightly focus on discrete pieces of this policy puzzle that directly affect our work. Otherwise, our voice will be lost in the din.
It is also clear that we cannot hope to have an effective voice in this arena without significant outreach to the land trust community about how climate change may affect the lands they care for, and how certain policy options may help them respond to those changes.
5. Enact additional new federal conservation tax incentives
If we succeed in making the new easement donation incentive permanent, we will face an interesting question - what should our next goal be? Any of these tax changes could be important to the future of land conservation:
- Further estate tax benefits for properties under conservation easements;
- A cut in capital gains tax on sales of land or easements to a conservation entity; or
- Creation of federal tax credits to finance conservation easement purchases.
We mention estate tax first because it is very likely that the Congress will take up estate tax reform in 2009. In the course of that reform, it is very likely that the unified credit against estate tax will be raised to $3-5 million per person, meaning that, for the most part, estates of less than $6 million will not be affected by the estate tax at all.
That means that relatively few people will be affected by the estate tax – although clearly, those few may own important properties. Several members of Congress are working on reforms that provide special treatment for lands protected by conservation easements. The Piedmont Environmental Council is advocating for HR 3708, an expansion of the existing estate tax incentive for conservation easements, IRC 2031(c)). There will also be proposals to exempt all agricultural lands from estate tax.
Conservation incentives not related to the estate tax may have a much harder time getting started next year, as the economic slowdown and increasing medical and retirement expenditures are making the federal budget situation worse – making new tax cuts (and new spending) even harder to achieve.
6. Defend federal funding for the purchase of land and easements
As budget deficits restrain federal spending on non-defense programs, Congressionally-determined funding for programs to purchase land and conservation easements have been under great pressure. Those programs include the Land and Water Conservation Fund (including its grants to state parks agencies), the Forest Legacy Program, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants program, State Wildlife Grants, and others. Some have done better than others, and while they have rebounded somewhat in the past two years (to about $400 million a year), their long-term prospects are problematic because of growing federal budget deficits.
A number of major conservation organizations (including Alliance members The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and The Conservation Fund) have been working hard to maintain this funding, or re-invent it through new authorizing legislation that taps federal oil and gas revenues.
In addition, at least one Member of Congress is interested in starting a federal grant program for land trusts.
7. Help land trusts enact state tax incentives for land conservation
There is little question that the enactment of transferable state income tax credits for conservation donors greatly accelerated conservation donations in Colorado and Virginia. Several other states are considering similar tax credits.
Although our policy program has been designed to work on federal policy issues affecting land trusts across the country, the effectiveness of these state tax measures has led many in the conservation community to view them as the most effective possible conservation incentive. Important questions may be how the Alliance could effectively help states enact such credits and whether working in one or a few select states would be a wise use of Alliance resources.
8. Fight energy-development threats to conserved lands
A 2005 Energy Bill allows the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to declare “National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors” across broad regions of the country. This designation provides utilities federal condemnation authority to construct transmission lines, exempts these proposals from environmental review, and preempts traditional state regulation of transmission lines and local land use laws. Conserved lands may be at particular risk due to their lower condemnation costs.
Land trusts in Pennsylvania and Virginia have taken a leading role in this issue, both fighting specific proposals in their region, and seeking Congressional oversight of this sweeping DOE authority. With the designation of additional corridors nationwide, these land trusts are seeking a national organization to take the lead in coordinating a federal policy response.
Thus far, the Alliance has primarily addressed this issue as a legal one, through our Conservation Defense program. To take on a more significant coordinating role on federal policy would require a significant investment of Alliance resources in an unfamiliar regulatory field.
This is not the only energy-related threat to conserved lands. Many lands that were protected by land trusts when energy development was not thought to be likely are now, with higher energy prices and new technologies for energy extraction, very much at threat. These include lands underlain by shale beds that may now be explored for natural gas in places as diverse as Montana, New York and Pennsylvania, and the Appalachians.
9. Increase advocacy skills and activism by land trusts, generally
This effort has always played a supporting role in our work on specific federal policy issues. Should it play a more prominent role in the Alliance's policy program? In the past, federal policy issues – like the new tax incentive for easement donations – have we have used to enable us to capture land trusts’ attention to developing their advocacy skills. Is there a better way? We want to hear your ideas for how we can best help land trust leaders become skillful advocates for conservation in their communities.
Tell us your ideas for what the Alliance's policy program should be doing. You may have a very different take on how the Alliance's policy program can best help land trusts achieve their goals. If so, let us know!